Was Jesus Born on January 6?

Some ancient Christians thought so. In fact, other dates were considered as well.

A heretical Christian group (known as the Alogi) located in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) apparently dated Jesus’s birth on (what would for us be) either June 20 or May 21 (depending on the reading) in the year 9 CE. An unrelated group of Christian Gnostics in Egypt (followers of the Gnostic teacher Basilides) gave a similar date for Jesus’s birth: May 20. They also believed that Jesus’s baptism occurred on this same date exactly thirty years later.

Early Christian theologian and historian, Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403 CE), claimed that the May date was actually the date of Jesus’s conception rather than his actual birth. Was this what the heretical groups noted above originally intended? Epiphanius wrote that the actual date of Jesus’s birth was on January 6, a winter solstice date (when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun), and he cites a number of traditions to prove it. This date became known as Epiphany, which comes from the Greek word for “the appearing” as it is used in 2 Timothy 1:9-10:

He is the one who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made visible through the appearing (epiphaneias) of our Savior Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 1:9-10 NET)

Thus, many early Christians thought that January 6 was the date that Jesus, the glory of God, appeared on earth and the same date that, thirty years later, the Spirit appeared to Jesus as a dove as it entered him during his baptism.

Another tradition understood that Mary’s pregnancy lasted “ten months less fourteen days and eight hours,” or, put another way, “nine months plus fifteen days and four hours.” Those Christians, counting backward from Jesus’s presumed birthdate of January 6, derived the date of Mary’s conception as March 20. Coincidentally, that would be the same date that they also believed Jesus was crucified. Therefore, some Christians claimed that Jesus both came into the womb of an earthly, human woman and left the earth as a human being on March 20.

Scholar Jack Finegan notes that the birth date of January 6 may have been chosen to supplant a popular, pagan religious ceremony dedicated to the goddess Kore that was held on that date in such locales as Egypt and Arabia. On the night of January 5 and the morning of January 6…

“The participants stay awake all night…making music to the idol with songs and flutes. In the early morning at cockcrow they descend by torchlight to a subterranean shrine and bring forth a wooden image, marked with the sign of a cross and a star of gold on hands, knees, and head. This image they carry in procession to musical accompaniment, and then return it to the crypt. They explain the meaning of the ceremony to the effect that in this hour this day Kore, the virgin, gave birth to the Aion.” (Handbook of Biblical Chronology, pg. 325)

December 25 was also a winter solstice date as well as the date of another pagan festival. It has equal claims on early tradition as being the date of Jesus’s birth, deriving from at least the second or third century. Unfortunately, December 25 has no greater claim to authenticity than January 6. Nevertheless, fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom defended this date by claiming that, since John the Baptist, in his view, was conceived between September 25 and October 1 (the Feast of Tabernacles), then Mary would have conceived Jesus six months later (Luke 1:26) in April. Nine months after that (counting inclusively), Jesus was born on December 25.

As many readers will already know, December 25 was the date of the pagan festival of Sol Invictus, the “Invincible Sun.” As Finegan points out:

“The cult of Deus Sol Invictus was still at its height in the time of Constantine and the portrait of the sun god was on the coins of the emperor, but with his rise to sole rule of the empire (A.D. 323-337) Constantine was free to accept Christianity openly. Thereafter his coins and inscriptions were no longer offensive to Christians and Dec 25 was freely the birthday of Christ, as attested in the Roman city calendar in A.D. 336.” (pg. 328)

Regardless of the date chosen, ancient Christians seemed to agree that Jesus was conceived in the spring (shepherds abiding in the fields?) and born in the mid-winter. Whether either of these choices are historically accurate is debatable. Each has a 1/365 chance of being right! The Feast of Epiphany is still celebrated in Christianity either as the day of the visitation of the Magi to Jesus’s crib (Western tradition) or the date on which Jesus was baptized (Eastern tradition). While most churches continue to celebrate Epiphany on January 6, others do so on January 1 or even January 19. Some call it Twelfth Night, Three Kings’ Day, or Little Christmas. Whether or not Jesus was born on this date, it remains a prominent festival in the Christian calendar.

Did Baby Jesus Go to Egypt?

As many readers know, there are two stories of Jesus’s birth and childhood in the New Testament. They are told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but the stories are quite different. Beyond the core themes shared by both authors (Mary becomes pregnant but not by Joseph; Jesus is born in Bethlehem) the stories feature differing details and emphases. It is the Gospel of Matthew, for example, that relates such unique narrative elements as the moving star, the arrival of the magi, the attempt by King Herod to execute the baby Jesus, and the family’s brief trip to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Why Egypt? Is such a trip even historical? We may never know the answer to the second question but we can offer quite a bit of insight into why Jesus and his family might have been portrayed as going to Egypt.

The Gospel of Matthew is considered by many scholars to be the most “Jewish” gospel of the four New Testament gospels although others have debated this assessment. Either way, the author is unique in crediting so much of Jesus’s activity to the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Multiple times we encounter such explanations for the things Jesus does as taking “place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 21:4 NET). If we read the gospel with this in mind, we can assume that the author wanted Jesus’s trip to Egypt to fulfill a scriptural prophecy. In fact, the author is quite clear about this. He wrote, “In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt.’” (Matt. 2:15 NET). The “prophecy” in question is from the Book of Hosea (11:1 NET): “When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt.”

The Gospel of Matthew is concerned not only with providing evidence that Jesus was God’s son in a unique way (Israel, too, is often characterized as God’s son in the Jewish scriptures) but that he is a new, updated Moses. Like Moses, Jesus was saved from a wrathful potentate who wanted to destroy Israelite/Jewish babies. Like Moses, Jesus/Israel comes out of Egypt (as Moses and Israel did in the Exodus). And like Israel itself which followed the patriarch (ancient father) Joseph, Jesus initially goes with his “father” Joseph into the land of Egypt.

It is a theological question, and thus a matter of faith, whether Jesus actually fulfilled all of the prophecies Matthew suggests or whether the author searched for prophesies in the scriptures in order to place them into the context of Jesus’s life. Was the prophecy about Egypt so important that Matthew felt compelled to write a story to show that Jesus fulfilled it? Or did Jesus actually go to Egypt and Matthew later found a prophecy that fit the circumstances?

Continue reading “Did Baby Jesus Go to Egypt?”

What is the New Covenant and Who is it with?

There is a presumption among many Christians today that the “new covenant,” one that supposedly came with the arrival of Jesus, was established between God and Christians. Is that what history tells us? If it does, then what does the new covenant entail? If it does not, then what is the new covenant and how did it come to be perceived as a Christian covenant? Let’s start our historical investigation with a bit about the terminology.

What is a covenant? The Hebrew term is beriyth (ber-REETH), the Greek is diathḗkē (dee-ath-AY-kay). Both refer to an alliance, settlement, pledge, treaty, arrangement, or agreement between two parties. The terms can also indicate a disposition or will, in other words, a testament. Thus, the Christian Old and New Testaments actually reflect a Christian belief in old (Jewish) and new (Christian) covenants. What is such a division meant to imply? Let’s begin to answer these questions by surveying each of the covenants enacted between God and humans that are recorded in the Bible.

The earliest covenant appears in Torah’s book of Genesis. There, God made a covenant with Noah (Gen. 6:18) which followed God’s instructions that Noah collect two of every species of living creature on earth and place them in the ark. God made this covenant not only with Noah but with his descendants and “with every living creature.” God agreed that “never again will all living things be wiped out by the waters of a flood” (Gen. 9:9-11). The sign of the ratification of this covenant was the rainbow. Note that this covenant is a “perpetual” covenant – that is, it has no end (Gen. 9:16).

The next covenant also appears in Genesis (ch. 17). This time it was made by God directly with Abraham but also applied to his future son Isaac as well as Abraham’s lineal descendants through him. In this covenant, God promised both land and people, that is the land of Israel and a multitude of descendants through Abraham’s wife Sarah. The sign of the ratification for this covenant was circumcision (Gen. 17:11-13). Note once again that this covenant is “perpetual”; it will have no end (Gen. 17:7, 19).

After a time, these covenant people, descendants of Abraham, found themselves enslaved in Egypt. Moses was chosen by God to liberate them and take them back to the land originally promised to Abraham and his descendants. Along the way, God gave the Torah, the “instructions,” to the covenant people through Moses. This Torah is also called the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 24:7). The sign of the ratification of this covenant was blood taken from a number of bulls which Moses took and splashed on the makeshift altar he constructed. In response, the covenant people chanted, “We are willing to do and obey all that the Lord has spoken” (Ex. 24:7). Moses then sprinkled the same blood on the people themselves saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Ex. 24:8). An additional sign of this covenant was to be the keeping of the Sabbath (Ex. 31:13). Once again, this covenant is described as perpetual, that is, everlasting (Ex. 31:16). This newer covenant is between God and the covenant people (Ex. 34:27).

We should pause here and note that none of these covenants superseded or replaced previous ones. All remained valid. God is quoted as looking back and saying to Moses, “I will remember my covenant with Jacob and also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham and I will remember the land” (Lev. 26:42). After threatening punishment to those who might break the covenant, God assures Moses that God will always remember the covenant(s): “I will not reject them and abhor them to make a complete end of them, to break my covenant with them…I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 26:44-45). According to Deuteronomy, God “is a merciful God, he will not let you down or destroy you, for he cannot forget the covenant with your ancestors that he confirmed by oath to them” (Deut. 4:31). Remember: the covenants are perpetual. God keeps the “covenant faithfully with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).

There is yet one additional covenant that should be mentioned. When King David replaced Saul as the leader of the twelve tribes, a covenant was made between God and the new king concerning his dynasty. David said “my dynasty is approved by God, for he has made a perpetual covenant with me, arranged in all its particulars and secured” (2 Sam. 23:5). The Psalms, supposedly written by David, add emphasis to the “particulars.” Psalm 89 quotes God as saying “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have made a promise on oath to David…I will give him an eternal dynasty, and make his throne as enduring as the skies above.” Note the perpetual nature of this covenant as well: “I will give you an eternal dynasty…I will always extend my loyal love to him, and my covenant with him is secure.”

Why have we spent so much time reviewing these Biblical covenants? We have done so to establish certain consistent features among them. First, covenants are between God and the Jewish people or their forerunners (the people of the covenant): Noah, Abraham, Moses, David. Second, the covenants are perpetual; they do not end. Neither do they supersede or replace earlier covenants. The covenant with David, for example, does not invalidate those made with Noah, Abraham, or Moses. Third, each succeeding covenant can be called “new” without impacting negatively on the one(s) that went before. They achieve different ends but work together to achieve a more complete arrangement between God and God’s covenant people.

The idea of yet another “new” covenant is broached by the mid-7th-century BCE prophet Jeremiah. It was during his lifetime that the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah, the southern kingdom of the land promised to Abraham that was formed when the twelve tribes broke apart following the kingship of Solomon. Eleven tribes combined to form the northern Kingdom of Israel, conquered in the 8th-century BCE by the Assyrians. One hundred and twenty-five years later, Jeremiah watched as the wealthy, educated leadership of Judah was taken into exile in Babylon. He saw how the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and demolished the Temple originally built by Solomon. He bewailed what he considered the sinful (politically inadvisable) acts of the Judean leadership that he believed were now being punished by God. In that context he looked forward to yet another covenant, “a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah” (Jer. 31:31). It would be issued differently from (but would not replace) the Mosaic covenant that he believed had been violated by the leaders. This new covenant would be made “with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” that is, when they returned from Babylon. With this covenant, God would put his Torah “within them and write it on their hearts and minds” (Jer. 31:33). In other words, God would “forgive their sin” and ensure that Torah would not be broken again. Just to be clear, Jeremiah quoted God as saying, “The Lord has made a promise to Israel…The descendants of Israel will not cease forever to be a nation in my sight…I will not reject all the descendants of Israel because of all that they have done. That could only happen if the heavens above could be measured” (Jer. 31:37), which of course they couldn’t be. In other words, the promises to Israel would never be forgotten.

That brings us to the first mention of the new covenant by a believer in the messiahship of Jesus: the apostle Paul. Yes, Paul. Paul’s letters are the earliest literature by a Christ-confessor yet discovered. They were written decades before the gospels.

Paul is often characterized as the “founder of Christianity,” and/or a “Jewish apostate” who found no absolution for his sins until the coming of Christ. This is all supersessionist nonsense and I have refuted these points in other posts. Paul was actually a faithful, observant Jew for his entire life, who, like all Jews, found forgiveness for his sins in the provisions of Torah. As an observant, Christ-confessing Jew, he brought to the pagan world what he believed was a divinely-instituted means by which Gentile sins could be redeemed enabling them to become children of God and be saved from the wrath that would soon accompany the end of the age. For now, let’s concentrate on Paul’s references to the new covenant.

Paul specifically mentions the new covenant twice. In 2 Corinthians 3:6 he speaks of himself and unnamed others as “servants of a new covenant not based on the letter but on the Spirit.” He adds that the “letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” It is important to understand that all of Paul’s letters are addressed to Gentiles and their particular needs in light of the coming “wrath” (Rom. 2:5; 1 Thess. 1:10, etc.). Much of Paul’s mission has been to correct the impression held by some Gentiles that merely by observing certain provisions of the Jewish Torah (“Judaizing”) they could be made righteous before God. As non-Jews, it is impossible to adequately follow Torah. Not only that, they did not have the proper faith (the faith of Abraham). Indeed, “the letter” of the law (written Torah) kills Gentiles.

Now that Christ has come and died to redeem their sins, Gentiles have a pathway to salvation. They can share in the faithfulness of Christ and obey the Torah as appropriate for them by the guidance of the Spirit (“the Spirit gives life”). How did this happen?

Paul believes that Christ announced the new covenant, the one prophesied by Jeremiah, that “writes” the Torah on people’s hearts and minds. In Paul’s view, the Spirit will now instruct everyone, Jew and Gentile, as to how best each group should obey Torah. Remember, Paul never invalidates the Torah in his letters (Rom. 7:12) and he demands obedience to elements of the Torah for his non-Jewish audiences (1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:20-21; Gal. 5:19-21; Rom. 1:29-31; etc.). Paul’s formula for salvation for both groups is always: faith plus obedience equals salvation.

Paul refers to Jeremiah’s new covenant language again in Romans 11:27 directly quoting the prophet: “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” Who is “them”? Note that this quotation of Jeremiah follows Paul’s declarative (and often ignored) statement: “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Paul understood that the covenants are with the covenant people, not with non-Jews/Gentiles. The fact that Gentiles have now become eligible for redemption, as Paul proclaims, has nothing to do with their entering into a separate covenant with God. As Paul says earlier in Romans: “my fellow countrymen…are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:3-4). Paul also understood that additional covenants did not invalidate previous ones (Gal. 3:15-17). This new covenant, proclaimed by Jeremiah, was interpreted by Paul, at least, as one that would begin at the dawn of the new age (not at the return of the Jewish leadership from Babylon as Jeremiah anticipated). Paul knows that this new covenant is, like all the others, between God and “the nation of Israel” (i.e., Jews) as Jeremiah said; it is not between God and pagans, former or otherwise. The effects of the new covenant may impact non-Jews but they are not signatories to it. As John 4:22 makes clear, “salvation comes from the Jews.”

A final word about the new covenant and Jesus. Paul claims to recite words that he says he “received from the Lord,” words that were said “on the night when he was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23). Paul quotes Christ as saying “this cup [of wine] is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). Remember the signs of ratification of the covenants we looked at above: rainbow, circumcision, blood (of the bulls), an everlasting dynasty. This sign is also blood, the blood of Jesus sprinkled on the cross and symbolized (sprinkled among the people, as it were) through the wine served at the Eucharist. It signified (for Paul and others) Jeremiah’s new covenant in which the Spirit would instruct the faithful about the requirements of Torah. In Paul’s hands, Jeremiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled eschatologically, another indication that the new age was dawning (this, as we saw, was not Jeremiah’s thinking). Paul’s “words of the Lord” were later picked up in three of the four gospels and located in the story of Jesus’s last supper (John never uses the word “covenant” and does not feature Paul’s “words of the Lord”).

In short, the new covenant, whatever else Christ-believing Jews said it was, whether Paul or the gospel writers, was never suggested to be an agreement between God and pagans or between God and Christ-believing Gentiles. It did not supersede or replace any previous covenant. All remained operative working together according to God’s plan. The covenants remain with Israel. The Jewish messiah, according to Paul, announced a new covenant with the Jewish faithful, some of whom were seated around him “on the night in which he was betrayed,” to be ratified in his blood. It announced the coming of the Spirit who would write the laws of God on the hearts and minds of those who love God. Paul believed that Gentiles could be among them.

Was Christ Crucified for the Sins of the World?

Most Christians will answer this question with a resounding “Yes, of course.” Wasn’t that the entire reason for Christ’s suffering and death? Didn’t Christ die as a sacrifice to atone for sins that would have otherwise resulted in the death of the sinner? In some sense, the earliest Christ-believers, that is, mostly Jews and some Gentiles of the early-to-mid-first century, would have acknowledged that most of these questions could be answered affirmatively. What they would not have understood, however, was that Christ died for the sins of the world.

The problem here is not one of semantics but of supersessionism in disguise. It is a statement that preferences Christianity over Judaism by either ignoring Judaism or relegating it to nonessential status. How so? The interpretation of Christ’s death as having anything to do with atoning for sins was the unique contribution of the apostle Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews). As an observant Jew, Paul was well aware of the various means of atonement for sin already available to Jews. Some of these are spelled out in the Torah, others in the prophets. Atonement was achieved, for example, through repentance, prayer, sacrifice, almsgiving and monetary contributions, fasting, suffering, and even one’s own death (if that death was offered as atonement for one’s own sins). The point is that Jews did not need or await a dying messiah to atone for their sins. There were many alternatives and provisions for atonement as part of Jewish obedience to their covenant requirements.

Beginning in the second century BCE, there did come to exist the notion in Judaism that some righteous Jews suffered and even died on behalf of the Jewish people. This idea arose most notably in the apocryphal/deutero-canonical books of the Maccabees. But this idea was not one in which a dying, righteous Jew atoned for the sins of other Jews. Rather, these Jews underwent the sufferings that were actually threatening all of the people; their deaths vicariously represented the possible fate of all righteous Jews. The historical background to these books of the Maccabees is that the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, had outlawed the practice of Judaism under penalty of persecution and even death. These books relate stories of righteous Jews who refused to give up their religion and way of life even if it meant death for them. They were not dying for Jewish sins. They were dying as representatives of all righteous Jews who were in danger of suffering the same fate. They were seen as martyrs and heroes for that reason. It had nothing to do with Jewish sins.

The work of John the Baptist is often seen by Christians as a response to the need for Jews to make atonement for their sins through baptism as if there were no available alternatives. In light of what was said above, this was hardly the case. Jews were not waiting on John or some other divinely inspired prophet for redemption. From a Jewish point of view, John served to encourage the people to make proper atonement for their sins at that particular time, before it was too late to do so. His ritual washings were either meant to signify the sincerity of the baptizand’s commitment to atone or were themselves meant as yet another means of atonement. In neither case did John bring atonement for sin because there was no means for doing so.

Neither did Jesus’s death satisfy his Jewish followers’ need for a means of atonement. Again, Jews, even followers of Jesus, were not waiting for a messiah to redeem them from their sins. Many awaited a messiah who would triumph over God’s enemies, namely, those foreign oppressors who, for at least the past 500 years, had dominated the Jewish homeland once exclusively designated for them by God. Those Jews with an apocalyptic bent understood that those foreign oppressors were working, knowingly or not, for the leading enemy of God, Satan. The messiah would defeat Satan and all his earthly and non-earthly minions.

Paul, as a Jew, knew all this. He knew that Jews were not waiting for a messiah to bring liberation from their own sins. Remember that Paul did not declare himself apostle to the circumcised. The circumcised did not need the unique gospel message that Paul felt divinely called to bring to non-Jews (though he did believe Jews should acknowledge that his message was valid). Paul’s gospel to the non-Jews proclaimed that Gentiles now had available to them a means of atonement outside the provisions of the Jewish Law. That was a good thing for Gentiles, in Paul’s view, because, as things stood, they could not properly lead righteous lives according to the provisions of Torah without converting to Judaism. God was now calling Gentiles to join his family as adopted Gentile sons and daughters.

This difference in Paul’s message to Gentiles as opposed to Jews is, incredibly, missed by a whole host of mainstream scholars, not to mention most Christian theologians and ministers. One example will have to suffice.

For my Introduction to the New Testament course, I use as our textbook the otherwise excellent A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart Ehrman. I don’t, however, use the chapters on Paul because of statements like this:

“Missionaries like Paul actively propagated the faith, converting Jews and Gentiles to faith in Christ as the Son of God, who was crucified for the sins of the world and then raised by God from the dead.” Bart Ehrman, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, 4th ed., pg. 47 (italics added).

First of all, the word “converted” is entirely misleading and indicates to many readers that believers of Paul’s message were converting to Christianity. For one thing, Jewish believers in Christ were not converting to anything. They remained Jews even as they accepted Jesus as the Messiah or Christ. Ask yourself: What would they have converted to? There was no Christianity in the days of Paul. Christianity was a development of the second century though obviously having roots in the first. Paul himself did not convert to a different religion – the only alternative available to him was paganism. And, surprisingly to some, pagans did not convert to anything either, notwithstanding the fact that they came to express faith in the God of Israel and his Christ. They certainly did not convert to Judaism (Paul insisted they not do that) and, as we said, there was no religion known as Christianity at that time. They did, however, convert out of paganism – Paul insisted that his non-Jewish audience reject their ancestral and civic gods and worship only the God of Israel. This ambiguous condition, neither Jew nor pagan, eventually proved unsatisfactory and led to the creation of a stand-alone (mostly Gentile) religion we now know as Christianity.

Just as Paul insisted that idolatry had no place in the life of a righteous Gentile, neither did a past filled with unredeemed sin. These Gentile sins are the ones Paul insisted Christ died for (Gal. 5:2) not, as in Ehrman’s statement, the sins of the world. Note the Christian supersessionistic implications of that phrase which simply ignores the fact that Jews, too, are part of the world. It ignores the atonement provisions already available to Jews as if they were nonexistent or rendered meaningless now that Christ had come. It lumps Jews in with sinning Gentiles as part of a world that had no prior means of atonement. That was not Paul’s view.

Paul’s unique good news message, or gospel, proclaimed to his non-Jewish audiences was that God had made a way, through the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ, for non-Jews to be washed clean of their sins. If the non-Jew put his or her trust (Greek = pistis, sometimes translated as “faith”) in God’s plan of salvation for Gentiles, enabled through the faithful act of Jesus Christ who carried out his part by allowing himself to be crucified, they could be saved from the coming wrath by way mystically joining in that crucifixion with the hope of an afterlife like that experienced by Christ.

The messianic expectations of the Jews would be fulfilled, according to Paul, when Christ returned. The period of time between Christ’s crucifixion and parousia (return) was divinely designated as the time for the Gentiles to come to faith in God. Paul felt he was a vital cog in God’s plan to make salvation available to the rest of the world (not the world) in order to fulfill prophecy and validate God as the God of all people not just of the Jews.

Your Beliefs about the Afterlife: Are They Christian?

My summer reading program has essentially concluded with two recommended volumes that together cover much of the same ground. Bruce D. Chilton’s Resurrection Logic: How Jesus’ First Followers Believed God Raised Him from the Dead (Baker, 2019) was followed a year later by Bart D. Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster, 2020). Both books explore ancient notions of what happens to people after death.

People have wondered about, been afraid of, and looked forward to what happens after death since before recorded history. The very earliest textual remains, the Middle Eastern epic Gilgamesh account, tells a four-thousand-year-old story about a super-human demigod who sought, and ultimately failed, to find immortality in a life-giving herb. Along the way he encountered dead friends and family who lie without hope in the dust.

Over a thousand years after Gilgamesh visited the realm of the dead, the semi-legendary Greek author Homer similarly conceived of the afterlife as bleak and dreary in his two major works: the Iliad and the Odyssey. According to Homer, once the life breath is gone, disembodied souls with no hope of return live out an existence offering neither pain nor pleasure. Notably, however, semi-divine offspring, including Hercules, might expect to exist forever among the gods. Three other men who had angered the gods are damned to eternal torture in Hades. Starting to sound familiar?

Continue reading “Your Beliefs about the Afterlife: Are They Christian?”

One God in Multiple Persons: A Christian Idea?

The notion of multiple persons in the godhead is normally thought to be a Christian innovative change to Judaism’s distinctive monotheism. But is it? UC Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin, in his book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, provides compelling evidence that the trinitarian, or at least binatarian, notion of God, has roots deep in Jewish history – virtually from its beginnings.

This should not be a complete surprise. Throughout the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Jewish Tanakh or Christian Old Testament, there are multiple references to a multipersonal God as well as a multiple number of gods. Most readers are familiar with God’s statement in Genesis: “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness” (1:26 NET). Later, “the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (3:22). In the story of the tower of Babel, “the LORD said… ‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech’” (Gen. 11:6-7). Who is us?

Nor is the existence of multiple gods contested in Torah. In the story of the Exodus, God tells Moses and Aaron that “I will pass through the land of Egypt…and I will attack all the firstborn in the land of Egypt… and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment” (Exodus 12:12). Later, Moses and the freed Israelites sing, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?” (Exodus 15:11). One of the ten commandments instructs God’s followers to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). God declared to the Israelites that “the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords” (Deuteronomy 10:17). This sentiment is echoed in other places in the Bible such as Psalms 136:2 and Daniel 2:47.

A divine council or heavenly host is mentioned several times in the Hebrew scriptures. “The LORD came from Sinai…he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand” (Deuteronomy 33:2). A vision granted to the prophet Micaiah revealed “the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (2 Chron. 18:18). Job refers to “a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6, cf. 2:1).

Continue reading “One God in Multiple Persons: A Christian Idea?”

Spirit-Possession: A Hallmark of the Earliest Church?

In his groundbreaking work, Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity, Stevan L. Davies makes the case that scholars have largely overlooked a major component of early Christian culture and ideology: that of spirit possession. Most readers of the gospels are familiar with Jesus exorcising demonic spirits from a number of victims but overlook the entire cultural predilection for belief in, and literary reflection on, spirit-controlling phenomena which are evident throughout the gospels and letters of Paul. These texts are, after all, the earliest written Christian material. Remarkably, the high valuation of spirit-possession quickly diminishes in later New Testament texts and, by the second century, such spirit-centered faith is largely deemed heretical.

If you tune your ears properly, references to spirit possession begin to reveal themselves especially in the Gospels of Mark and John and in the letters of Paul. But first, a bit of discussion about the phenomena itself. As Davies points out, spirit possession is a cross-cultural and timeless phenomenon not restricted to any particular faith system or geographical location. Modern Western culture is generally only familiar with the concept of demonic possession showcased in various popular books and movies. But the actual phenomena itself continues to exist. Though considered less common in the West, spirit possession is reported more frequently in cultures that are receptive to it as an explanation for certain behavior that Western culture describes scientifically. Virtually every contemporary religion acknowledges spirit possession, usually of the destructive kind, and exorcistic formulae and methodologies have been devised to deal with it. Western psychiatry subsumes these phenomena under the category of dissociative disorders and treats them accordingly. Usually, psychiatry focuses on treating what are usually destructive dissociative states (known in other cultures and in religious parlance as demonic possession). Rarely are positive, or beneficial spirit-possession events studied, treated, or even acknowledged. In fact, with this Western cultural bias strongly entrenched, modern readers fail to recognize the evidence for the belief in, and welcoming of beneficial, or holy, spirit possession that is reflected throughout parts of the New Testament.

Right from the start, the Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel in the New Testament, describes as spirit-possession the events that transpire at Jesus’s baptism.

“Now in those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight.’ The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. (Mk. 1:9-12 NET)

Continue reading “Spirit-Possession: A Hallmark of the Earliest Church?”

Jesus and Paul Mention Them – But Who are the “Sinners”?

You might be asking why such an obvious question is being addressed in this post. Aren’t sinners just anybody since everybody sins? Well, not so fast. It turns out the Greek word for “sinner,” hamartōlos, had some specific meanings in the New Testament depending on how it was used. After we look at some examples from the gospels and the writings of Paul, this should become clear.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the stereotyping of other cultures and peoples were the norm. Romans, for example, divided the world into Romans, Greeks, and barbarians. Jews divided the world into Jews and Gentiles. These categories came replete with stereotypical characteristics that were often negative in nature. This is not surprising since these were dyadic cultures who measured self-worth in terms of how one adhered to group norms. Freedom of expression was much more limited than today. Being judged an honorable first-century, Mediterranean individual depended on how closely you complied with the norms expected for your group. There were gender norms, racial and tribal norms, clan norms, religious norms, social status norms, and so forth. Falling outside these expected norms resulted in being castigated by your group. You became “the other”, an outsider – a member of a group other than the one you were expected to belong to.

Paul is the earliest author represented in the New Testament. He was a Hellenistic (Greek acculturated) Jew and as such he shared ideas with other Hellenistic Jews of the Diaspora (the land outside Israel). He demonstrates his contemporary predilection for stereotyping “the other” as part of his recollection of a conversation he once had with the apostle Peter. Paul summarized the conversation in his letter to the Galatians. In speaking with Peter, Paul shared with him the notion that they were not members of “the other,” that is, the Gentiles. He pointed out that they were “Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (Gal. 2:15). Paul is not differentiating Gentile sinners from Jewish sinners; Gentiles as a group were categorized by most Jews to be irredeemable “sinners.” They did not have the Torah and so their overall behavior repeatedly violated it. Consequently, not having Torah, they had no means of atonement, a merciful feature of Torah for Jews. Gentiles were, as a class, “sinners.” According to most Jewish thought, there was no salvation outside Torah.

Continue reading “Jesus and Paul Mention Them – But Who are the “Sinners”?”

“The Apocalypse is Coming!” But Where Did It Come From?

Even in the 21st century, we are not without our warnings about the end of the world – euphemistically referred to as “the apocalypse.” Cults continue to arise predicting the end and even forecasting specific dates as to when it will happen. Movies and TV shows offer fictional recreations of the apocalypse. The atom bomb was supposed to usher in the age of the apocalypse. Climatologists warn that life as we know it will end if certain changes to our behaviors are not enacted. Are fears of the apocalypse a modern phenomenon or do they reach back deep into our collective history?

Apocalyptic notions actually began within Judaism and came to full flower in the 2nd century BCE. The Greco-Roman world generally viewed history in cyclical patterns in keeping with their observations of the rotation of the stars and planets and the repetition of the seasons. Kingdoms rose and fell, life came and went, the sun appeared every morning. Jews of the Biblical age (the Old Testament period) also tended to see history in this way. Their past was marked by repetitive, covenantal milestones in which the Jewish people would at times be faithful to God and be rewarded with blessings, and at other times be disobedient to God and be punished with various calamities. This is sometimes referred to as a Deuteronomistic view of history, named for one of the books of Torah.

But things changed for the Jewish people while they were under the domination of the Greek successor-kings to Alexander the Great. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes of Antioch, Syria, forbid Jews in Israel from practicing their religion under penalty of torture and even death. In this new situation, whenever faithful Jews tried to be obedient to Torah and to God, they reaped punishment instead of blessing. Only acquiescence to pagan Greek demands resulted in the cessation of punishment. Good was rewarded with misery; evil collusion with blessing. The world view, for these Jews, had been turned upside down.

This upside-down view of the world is at the basis of apocalyptic thinking. How could Jews reconcile the incongruency that resulted from the fact that obedience to God led to punishment? They began to accept the notion that the world was not under the direct control of God but of God’s evil opponents. These forces of evil were envisioned as being led by an anti-God figure, often identified as Satan. Satan’s dark forces were temporarily in charge of planet earth. Their own human minions, the pagans, were acting on behalf of Satan and against the will of God. The world was indeed turned upside down: evil (paganism) was rewarded with power and wealth, goodness (Judaism) with persecution and suffering. How long would God let this happen?

Continue reading ““The Apocalypse is Coming!” But Where Did It Come From?”